The other day, a friend relayed a story about children she knew who were dropped off alone to play somewhere. It made her uncomfortable. The kids weren’t on their best behavior. And when she left, she felt it was all too easy for someone to run off with them. She wondered whether I would let my nine-year-old do that.
Um, no. Too many what-ifs go through my head.
Though I don’t think what the parents did was wrong, it just isn’t for me yet and I don’t think my son is quite mature enough to handle situations that could come up. I’ve read a lot about parenting styles lately: the hovering helicopter type, the strict tiger mother and wolf dad, the soft panda father, the hippo who makes her child comply, the pushover wishbone who wishes for better behavior, or those who raise children with freedom to roam. Who says any style is the right one?
To me parents are all of those things. At least, we should be. We’re strict when our children refuse to do their homework because they need good grades to get into college. We’re tough when they won’t eat a balanced meal because they need to grow up big and strong. We’re soft when they have a hard time tying their shoes because we see their fingers fumbling and their panic rising, and we know they’ll get it. We’re pushovers when it comes to just one more bedtime story because we simply love it too. We make our children comply with stupid rules like cleaning their rooms because we can’t stand the mess, when they really could just close their door. We give our kids freedom when they need it. And we hover a little too much sometimes because if the unthinkable happened on our watch, we would never forgive ourselves.
About four years ago when Lenore Skenazy let her then 9-year-old son ride the subway alone, she experienced a backlash after writing about it for The New York Sun. Her son found his way home safely and was super excited about his little adventure. She said she quickly became America’s Worst Mom. Her blog and book, Free-Range Kids, talk about giving kids freedom and us being less overprotective parents.
My son just turned nine. In the past year, we have fought and fought and fought some more. What have I learned? My son needed more freedom. I was hovering. A third-grader doesn’t want to be babied. He can do it himself so let him. When I figured that out, when he told me, for the most part the yelling and the struggle stopped. He certainly didn’t need to ride the subway alone, but he just needed to know that I trusted him, that I know he is capable. He needed self-esteem and confidence. And simple things like pouring from a full gallon of milk at breakfast and cleaning up the mess if he spilled gave him what he needed.
He plays outside by himself. He does homework alone. He can make lunch himself. I taught him how to cook a simple meal on his own. He picked up a wrench and took the seat off his bike. He learned to use a pocketknife by whittling a bar of soap. Next up will be getting the stains out of his pants because he just won’t stop rolling in the dirt every day like a giddy pig. We try to let him do what he can on his own. In the process, we show him respect.
However, there are rules I will not bend, times I hover more than ever, and I don’t apologize for it or hide it. I still think it’s good, conscientious parenting and I tell my kids why.
I still need to know where my children are and whom they play with. If I don’t know the parents, they can’t play at their house. At age nine I still screen what my son watches and reads. I still watch him when he rides his bike in the street. I don’t trust drivers who may be texting or on the phone, and I’ve seen my kids pull out of the driveway too many times without looking. And when my kids play in the front yard, you can bet I’m often checking out the window. They don’t have to know they’re being watched but at least it gives me peace of mind.
This means I’m not going to drop my kids off somewhere and let them play, not where I can’t see them. I don’t need to stand within arm’s reach. They can run and play, and I’ll sit and read. But an adult needs to look after them. And the truth is, my mother wouldn’t have done it either when I was 9. I simply think third grade is too young, but it’s a starting point.
When my son recently mentioned staying home for a few minutes to wait for his dad while I left for a meeting, I was OK with that. Turns out we didn’t need to, but to me that’s our first step—in the comfort of our home.
He’s young and going places alone by foot, bike, and car will happen soon enough. And for now, my kids can benefit from a parenting style that includes a little bit of everything.